Iowa Public Television


Detroit Urban Agriculture

posted on July 9, 2004

In many cities around the country, vacant lots are being transformed into productive community gardens. Urban farmers are staking claims on these green spaces and converting them into cropland,

One city benefiting from the efforts of residents who are beautifying hundreds of acres that once stood empty is the gritty city of Detroit. After the riots of the mid 60s, families left the city in droves. Over time, 40,000 vacant lots were left in their place. Today, roughly one-third of the city's 139-square mile area consists of empty spaces.

But rather than sitting by and doing nothing, many Detroiters have taken up small-scale farming on the now-green spaces. Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains.


Detroit Urban Agriculture

Over the past four decades, Detroiters have created numerous urban agriculture programs to serve several purposes. Some of those include: to provide thousands of pounds of fresh, nutritious produce for the city's families; to improve the communities by connecting neighbors; to create an attractive alternative to trash-strewn vacant lots; and to increase property values and reduce crime.

Williams Mills, 4-H Community Center: Green is important in the life of people and a lot of times in the cities, it gets to be a concrete jungle. We're trying to get the kids into seeing the Earth is somewhere they grow something. The Earth produces what they need. Concrete is basically, nothing comes from concrete.

One program is the 4-H Community Center organized in 1973. Its mission -- to provide non-formal education and training through 4-H Club work in areas of agriculture. William Mills is the Director and Extension 4-H Youth Development Agent.

Williams Mills, 4-H Community Center: I think it's important for kids to understand where their food comes from and how it is produced. So, the kids learn here by putting their hands in the Earth. Now when they come in the garden and play in the dirt, they see something grow there once they put these seeds in. There is a plant there and something grows there. They see the Earth as valuable.

Part of Michigan State University Extension, the Detroit 4-H Community Center offers gardening programs to local inner city youth who often come from low-income families. It's the only 4-H Center of its kind in the United States.

Demetris Mills, 4-H Community Center: A lot of kids say they don't like vegetables. I've learned over the years that if they plant it themselves, they kind of take pride in it and they will like it because they grew it.

In 1991, The Foundation for Agriculture Resources in Michigan, or F.A.R.M, was developed. Its members wanted to revitalize and reconnect urban agriculture and rural communities with a common appreciation for farming and natural resources in daily life.

JOHN GRUCHALA, F.A.R.M.: Regardless of who you are or where you're at in this country, we're all going to eat. I'm involved in urban agriculture. And what we do in the city as part of the food chain from consuming it, the grocery stores, to our backyard gardens. I kind of look at it as a part of agriculture and I don't feel distant from farmers when I drive across the country."

John Gruchala (Grew-CHAW-la), an electrician, began farming nearly an acre of idle land seven years ago. Today, working with neighbors, he produces a ton of produce a year.

John Gruchala, F.A.R.M.:My work, on some level, is involved in trying to engage young people in the neighborhood. I often say some will organize a softball team, I enjoy getting a group of kids together and say come on, let's grow something.

Gruchala decided to reclaim the empty lots surrounding his home and turn them into productive land. With the help of Dr. Harrison Gardner, the founder of F.A.R.M., Gruchala looked to the youth of his neighborhood to make things happen.

John Gruchala: The activity of growing food or agriculture engages young people in many tasks. The wonders of seeing something grow, the realization that it is through work that you are able to create products & It's like agriculture, being a farmers is much more than just putting a seed in the ground, and engaging young people is much more than a fun thing to do.

Yet, urban farmers face a number of challenges, from finding water, to getting rid of hazardous materials contaminating the soil, to handling city development concerns. If the vacant lots can make money for the city, then it's more likely the land will be sold to developers than urban farmers. However, Gruchala points out that the city administration has been supportive of the gardens and that he is working closely with city council members to ensure the future of the urban farms.

John Gruchala, F.A.R.M.: We have a lot of work to do so that it becomes part of the fabric of life, that agriculture and growing food is seen not as something you just do out in the country, but that agriculture is something you can do in the city.

According to the Detroit Agriculture Network, or D.A.N, under which many of the projects fall, none of the urban farms is profitable. Indeed, all depend on the help of its one thousand plus volunteers. D.A.N. has received an estimated 300,000 dollars in grants and donations, including a few grants from USDA, normally given to rural growers.

At the Capuchin (CAP-uh-chin) Soup Kitchen in Detroit, Brother Rick Samyn coordinates Growing Healthy Kids, a project that links local kids to food and nutrition. Brother Samyn says they are trying to empower the kids to have a vested interest in their food; if they grow it, harvest and cook it; odds are they're going to eat it.

Rick Samyn, Growing Healthy Kids: We have dual relations here. We have a need in the community where people need emergency food. But, what happens when that becomes a hand-out, where it's provided at no cost and no effort and it tends to keep the receiver disengaged & So, what we're trying to do, we're providing food through pantries and soup kitchens & We're also trying to look at the systematic problem of how we view food in our society and there is no better way than to start with young kids.

The Soup Kitchen, along with other urban agriculture organizations have teamed up to help provide gardeners the supplies they need to grow food. For a nominal fee, family and community gardeners can gain access to seeds, plants, tools, equipment and training.

More than 40 community gardens and micro-farms working with churches, schools, food banks, homeless groups and activists, grow, process and distribute an abundance of food. Members of D.A.N. claim they produce six tons of produce a year.

Rick Samyn, Growing Healthy Kids: I think when we look at the Detroit Agriculture Network, it is about food security, about not losing the tradition of preserving your own food, growing your own food. And, it also about trying to knit together a community that has been fragmented by poverty, ripped apart by expressways and really disenfranchised by racial issues and the lack of resources. I think that's what it really is.


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